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Missed early opportunities, big plays haunt Arizona State in loss to Utah

Utah defensive back Marcus Williams (20) intercepts a pass intended for Arizona State tight end Jay Jay Wilson, left, in the end zone during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — When the 15th-ranked team in the nation visits your house and slumbers through the first quarter, you’d better take advantage if you want to pull the upset.

The Arizona State Sun Devils were presented the opportunity to do just that Thursday night against Utah but couldn’t take advantage in their 49-26 loss in front of 48,220 fans in Tempe on Senior Night.

The Utes (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) just couldn’t do anything right early in the contest. On the first play from scrimmage, a shotgun snap bounced off of quarterback Troy Williams’ facemask and ASU’s George Lea recovered at the Utes’ 24-yard line.

But six plays later, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins returned the generosity, throwing an interception to Marcus Williams in the end zone on a 2nd-and-12 from the Utes’ 14.

“I just didn’t see a guy coming across,” Wilkins explained. “I’ve just got to know we’ve got points there regardless, we’ve got the best field goal kicker in the nation, so I’ve just got to throw that one away or get what I can get.”

Utah wouldn’t take advantage of ASU’s first miscue. Near midfield, Utes running back Joe Williams mishandled an option pitch and ASU senior Laiu Moakiola pounced on it at the Utah 48. The Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5) would drive deep into Utah territory and had a first down at the Utes’ 14-yard line. But they’d have to settle for a 24-yard field goal from Zane Gonzalez to open the scoring with 7:18 left in the first quarter.

The Utes went backward on their next drive and punted back to the Sun Devils. One of many gadget plays on the night worked for ASU when freshman receiver N’Keal Harry hit Fred Gammage on a beautiful 46-yard strike down the right sideline. Three plays later, Kalen Ballage scored on a 2-yard run from the Sparky formation to give ASU a 10-point lead.

Utah went three-and-out on its next drive, too. But once again, ASU failed to deliver the maximum amount of punishment. Wilkins hit Ballage on a swing pass out of the backfield, and the junior running back raced 71 yards down to the Utah 16. Wilkins and the offense couldn’t generate much from there. Gonzalez kicked a 36-yard field goal and ASU led, 13-0.

But it really could have been a lot worse for Utah, who got their first win at Sun Devil Stadium since 1976. ASU outgained Utah 192-27 in the first quarter but managed only 13 points on four red-zone trips.

Utah awoke from its nap in the second quarter.

Troy Williams threw three touchdown passes in the second stanza and the Utes went to the locker room leading 21-20.

Utah simply dominated the second half, outscoring the Devils 28-6 in those 30 minutes. The Utes don’t boast a prolific offense, but feasted on big plays, as many ASU opponents have in the last two seasons.

Joe Williams scored on touchdown runs of 82 and 40 yards. In all, Utah had three big-play touchdowns on the night.

Head coach Todd Graham, who is very involved in his team’s defensive scheme, was bewildered following the contest.

“The big plays, the explosives were the difference,” he said.

Graham and his defensive philosophy of frequent blitzing was ripped by critics at the end of 2015. ASU racked up sacks and tackles for losses, but also yielded big play after big play. They finished last season as the worst pass defense in the country.

This year, the philosophy has changed. The results haven’t.

“We thought we needed to pressure less, our production in sacks and TFLs has gone way down and we still are having the same issues with big plays,” he said. “That’s a little frustrating.”

The loss was ASU’s fourth straight. That’s only the second such skid during Graham’s tenure; the other came in his first season of 2012. That team finished strong however, beating Washington State and Arizona soundly to close the regular season before pounding Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

This year’s team doesn’t seem capable of doing the same. Certainly not next week in Seattle against Pac-12 juggernaut Washington.

“It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating,” Graham said. “But this is when you find out what you’re made of. We’ll rise again. We’ve just got to figure it out.”

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